Interviewing Anton Rocker


In the year 2042, an oral history of the then 25 year-old ongoing Revolutionary Participatory Society organization/project in the U.S. will be published. The book’s fifteen chapters will excerpt and arrange insights culled from eighteen interviews to present events and ideas in a sequential, encompassing way. 

By unknown dynamics, the book’s introduction, its 18 source interviews, and even drafts of its chapters, have begun to appear via email in the present. The web site at http://rps2044.org presents more about the project, its aims, and ways to relate to it, and offers more of its substance as well.

In any event, the interviewer is named Miguel Guevara and the interviewee in this article is named Anton Rocker. The year they meet is 2041. The interview is a virtually verbatim transcription. Also, as there are 18 interviews and since Guevara will seek to avoid undue overlap, no one interview serves as more than a facet of the larger whole.
–Michael Albert

Anton Rocker, you were born in 1987. A student of linguistics and cognitive science and a prolific writer, you focussed politically on workplace attitudes and roles and played an important role in shaping the emergence of RPS workplace program and activism. You became, in time, and for a time, Secretary of Labor for the RPS shadow government. It is hard to see how studying linguistics would have led to your work place focus and revolutionary career. Do you remember what happened?

Sure. As you perhaps know, linguistic theory was and remains very much beholden to Noam Chomsky’s work. Well, the guy had two lives. In one, he was this world class scientist in linguistics and cognitive science. You read his linguistics contributions and there was no pretense, no obscurantist verbiage. He offered clear logic and lots of evidence and always focussed on fundamental matters.

So one evening over a beer I was chatting with a friend on a date, and the woman asked about my studies and said she had read a lot of Chomsky, too, but she was referring to his other incarnation wherein he was a prolific, provocative, and unrelentingly radical historian of contemporary relations.

Not long thereafter I got sick and went online looking for something to read while I was bedridden and decided I’d try one of Chomsky’s political books. And the truth is, that was it. I read it. I was not just impressed, but opened up so fully that in the following months my way of viewing the world and even myself transformed. By way of Chomsky I also came across other radicals writing about economic  and social life and experiences. Before long I had revolutionary beliefs.

I have also been asking folks to briefly recount some event or campaign in the period of RPS emerging that was particularly moving and inspiring for them.

I guess more or less like most who have been in RPS all along, I was moved greatly by the first convention, and the second one too. The 2024 campaign for balanced jobs was very important for me and later working in the Shadow Government, of course. But there was one unusual and purely personal experience. It was not too long before the first convention, at the time of the major Wall Street March.

I took a cab to get to the march venue from the airport and got in a discussion with my driver. We talked about politics and the Trump fiasco and he was no supporter, but rather very angry with Trump. I asked him, after a bit, if he thought we would ever have a President who sincerely served the interests of working people, rather than one who merely made believe he would do so to capture votes.

The guy said no, not really. We might have a president, maybe even not far off, who was sincere rather than consciously lying, but it wouldn’t matter too much. Such a president, even if really nice and honest, would still be from the world of education and polish and would not understand the actual real plight of working people so that even if he tried, he would fall short of representing workers.

So I asked what about if we had an actual worker win as President, someone without all that polish, but not a rich bully like Trump, rather, a real working class person with working class values and agenda. He said it just wouldn’t happen. No one like that could rise into media visibility, and, in any case, such a person wouldn’t win. Why, I wondered? Because workers, he said, would never vote for another worker as President in the U.S. They, and he included himself, would assume a worker just wouldn’t be able to do the job.

I was seriously shook by this. So depressing, so wrong about the potential of a working person, but so right, sadly, about the history we had long endured. I knew then that for RPS to attain its full goals we had to overcome this self deprecation in people’s minds and hearts, or we would lose, over and over. So it molded my priorities for ever after.

There wasn’t too much workplace activism afoot after the initial convention. What were the early involvements of RPS folks on that front?

The first large thrust was about minimum wage. It had come out of a range of dissent that had been called Occupy Wall Street but which also addressed many other financial centers around the world. The main post convention economic focus had started years earlier with low income service workers in the fast food industry who had fought with considerable success. Next came more general campaigns for an increased minimum wage for public service workers, and then for all workers. During the Sanders/Clinton campaign for the Democratic 2016 nomination, minimum wage efforts got national prominence. Trump’s victory was a major setback, shifting focus to blocking his insane policies, but by the time of the RPS first convention, the fight for a higher minimum wage was entrenched and it was obvious RPS would support it. The only issue was could RPS bring anything new to these campaigns, or would we just throw in our energies too.

The second economic impetus rising into some prominence during the first convention, and then morphing into program and finally actual practical struggle, was about the duration of work. In the half century from 1955 to 2005, productivity per worker had soared. That meant output per capita was way up too. Indeed, by 2005 it was almost precisely double what it had been in 1955. Yet, work duration had also gone up dramatically. After fifty years, people had less vacation time, longer work weeks, and many more people had to hold two jobs, while others suffered from having no job at all.

With the product of all that productivity going overwhelmingly to the wealthiest 20% and even to the top 1% and even 0.1%, inequality horribly enlarged. Likewise, leisure – or time off work – was harshly reduced rather than enlarged, which in turn reduced quality of life and quality of relationships and families.

So, we wondered, what might RPS do? The thinking at the convention and after went like this.

To the effort to reduce inequality by raising minimum wages, RPS could add not only our support, but also a new dimension.

Why should there be a higher minimum wage? One reply, then dominant, was we must accept that earning income due to owning property, or due to having greater bargaining power, or due to working with more productive tools, or due to having more productive attributes, is inevitable. The share of social product we each get will inevitably vary with property, power, and output. However, the dynamic had gotten exaggerated and at the lowest end wages need to be raised to get us back into an acceptable pattern.

A second reply was that the social product we each receive should depend only on how long we work, how hard we work, and how onerous our work is. Because those now getting the least pay also have least power, have no property, and work very long and often longest at very onerous and often the most onerous conditions, for them to earn a higher minimum wage would move in the right direction, but would be only a first modest step.

This change in mindset moved the fight for a higher minimum wage from being a reformist battle to win a modest readjustment after which all would be well, to being a fight for a somewhat better position now in an ongoing battle over the entire logic of remuneration. Thus, the battle became a non reformist struggle. We would fight for a higher minimum wage not to win and go home, satisfied that our victory was all that could be had, but to win and then fight on, clear about just how much more we desired.

I remember a fight at the University of Chicago for a higher wage for groundskeepers and custodians. It adopted the RPS approach so the activists there didn’t argue the correct, ethical, economically sound income was some modestly increased amount. No, they asked why are we who work longer hours, in worse conditions, and with more intensity, earning vastly less than faculty, and stupendously less than the President of the University? They fought for immediate gain, but then fought on for more. They worked to raise basic issues and to develop lasting consciousness gains at every stage of their efforts. Their organizing emphasized the potentials of the low paid not their deprivations. It emphasized the unjust incomes of the most highly paid, not some mystical worthiness.

You said there were two RPS early priorities?

Yes, the second RPS focus was the emerging battle over duration of work that RPS actually introduced onto the national stage. But this had a few aspects.

First, it was about reducing the duration of work by winning more vacation time, shorter workdays, and shorter work weeks. Our main demand was to cut back to 30 hours of work per week though we quickly realized that this alone wasn’t enough to ensure good results. If we cut 10 hours off all jobs, incomes that were already too low for 80% of the workforce would become 25% lower per month. Those workers would just have to work second jobs so that when the dust cleared, we would be back where we started, or even worse off.

The more we thought about that, the more we understood that income distribution is about bargaining power not about rates of pay per se, or about hours per se. If you won a change in pay rates or in duration of work, but you didn’t change the balance of power, then once the situation settled, some new change would be imposed by those with power to gain back whatever they would otherwise have lost. It might be prices going up so that that real income didn’t change though nominal wages per hour did. Or it might be imposing multiple jobs per person, or greatly escalated overtime so overall hours didn’t change.

So we demanded 30 hours work for 40 hours pay, plus triple a worker’s usual hourly rate for overtime. But then we realized that was giving a better pay rate per 30 hours, not only to those who had low incomes, but also to those with higher incomes. So we modified the demand further to be 30 hours work for 40 hours pay for those who were earning less than $70,000 per year. For those earning above that, it would be 30 hours at the old pay rate or at $70,000 per year, whichever was the higher amount. In that way the demand meant that only if you had a high income, after the switch from 40 to 30 hours while your rate of pay per hour would not change, your total income could drop as much as 25%.

There was yet another dimension. If everyone who was working before would now work 25% less, could society get by with less product, or, if not, where would the additional product come from? The first part of making up for the lost product was to seek full employment which would add labor hours back into the economy and increase worker security and bargaining power as well. The second part of answering this concern was to note that some reduction of output would be ecologically good, in any event, and could be made not at all socially painful if we eliminated only useless output rather than what was most needed and desired. Reduction wouldn’t occur, for example, in legitimate medical care, or in teaching, or in necessary goods, and so on. Cuts would center in military production, in redundancy, in waste, and in outrageous luxuries. But in that case, there would need to be major upgrades in on the job and pre job training for people who would change jobs.

The point is we kept tweaking our ideas to arrive at a campaign that would win important and lasting gains that could not be whittled away, and that would also create conditions that would propel battles for still more gains. A very similar story held for virtually the entirety of the RPS agenda.

RPS wanted not only macro economic program, like minimum wage and a shorter work week, but also gains in specific industries and workplaces that would be won by workers located there. What were the obstacles RPS had to overcome in trying to organize workers around their own workplace conditions and their own lack of local power?

The basic answer is well known. Owners try to maintain their high profits and to that end interfere with organizing efforts every way they can. They were hell bent on their profits, their power, on forcing us to abide the straightjacket of their laws, their dogma, their brute force. That much we expected. What surprised us was encountering considerable worker resistance to RPS agendas.

This took a few forms. Fighting for higher wages or for some specific rule change that workers wanted was one thing. Workers might be slow to think it could succeed, or might fear retaliation from owners, but that, again, was an expected obstacle. Trying to organize workers to take initiative for decisions and to form their own councils to control work relations, was a very different matter.

For the battle for wages or conditions, the task of organizing was familiar. You had to hear the desires of people and propose demands that could be won to meet those desires. Then you had to find ways to communicate with your fellow workers and overcome their perfectly reasonable fears of being fired or otherwise penalized for seeking to win change.

For the latter type of battle, however, the situation was more complex. Many workers did not trust organizers seeking greater power for workers. They thought it was a trick by owners to elicit more work per hour. Another very different sort of problem was that many workers worried they wouldn’t make good decisions. They had imbibed the propaganda that they weren’t smart enough or didn’t and couldn’t know enough. Or sometimes worker’s felt, why should I make decisions about how to maximize profits for the owners? In fact, why should I take any initiative? Doing so will just add more hassle to my life, and I won’t get anything for it. Or they felt that making decisions would be a grave burden.

The first step to making progress was to admit that based on past experiences workers had good reason for their doubts. The second step was to reveal the kinds of decisions they might take and the impact it could have. The third step was deeper. We had to discuss the structure of work and why workers didn’t have much knowledge or confidence at work, and what ought to be done about it.

This last part of that agenda was the core point of the initial battles over creating worker assemblies and starting to use them. Having assemblies seek worker’s self management challenged the “nothing more is possible” propaganda and the “you are too dumb to manage” propaganda the workers had to some degree bought into, and it opened up discussions of what new relations a revamped workplace would need if it was to be really worthy and liberating. It took time but we made steady headway less because we were right, which was true enough, and more because we were good at hearing worker’s fears, respecting them, and carefully showing how to avoid the feared outcomes.

How was a connection made among all the efforts and what became most successful in terms of generating not only change, but support?

I think the key step was the early national campaign for a shorter work week we already talked about. For decades the duration of work by Americans had climbed. Two and three job families had declining family incomes. Workers with unpaid or even paid overtime had declining incomes. Home work entailed lost benefits and longer hours. Yet productivity per hour rose tremendously. Where did the product go? It went to the rich, war, and waste. Did people want to work their lives away to produce ever more opulence for the already opulent, murder machines, and garbage?

RPS began a campaign for a thirty hour work week. Firms could arrange their thirty hours however they chose, but the thirty hours was an upper limit. Firms could have someone work overtime, but for triple their usual hourly pay rate. You want more work from an individual, you pay for it.

But when RPS folks started to discuss this as a demand, as I already mentioned, we quickly realized there was a non income aspect. Cutting hours worked on producing waste, or killing machines, or opulence for the opulent, by 25% or even more, wouldn’t be bad even if no one was hired from the previously unemployed to jack back up lost output in those areas. But what about reducing the outlay of work 25% for all managers, lawyers, doctors and the whole coordinator class?

So the demand was refined by discussions among advocates for a considerable time before it emerged. As I said before, it was thirty hours work for forty hours of their prior hourly rate for those who earned, before the change, less than $70,000 a year. But thirty hours work for thirty hours at their prior hourly rate, if people earned, before the change over $70,000.  But then we added having public subsidies for on the job training to replace highly skilled work, with the realignment including job sharing that moved toward balanced job complexes.

Of course it didn’t start with all the caveats and other conditions that I am not even listing, but it got there, and it is easy to see just how redistributive and radical it became.

It is a bit off topic, but I have heard you are vegan and wondered if it has any bearing on your RPS involvement?

Yes, I am. It is partly a matter of health and cost. A vegan diet is healthier and nowadays also less expensive than a meat heavy diet. But my reasons are also ethical. I can’t handle eating animals. I would abstain even if it hurt my own health some, or cost me more per meal.

Some people with this stance believe it is valid, unimpeachable, unchallengeable, and see people eating meat as immoral. Some even see eating meat as abetting murder. Some say that a restaurant serving hamburgers is like a Nazi gas chamber and that the owners are like proprietors of fascist ovens while the patrons take what they consider benefits from the animal holocaust.

I don’t subscribe to any of that. I also have never met anyone who I felt really believed it, their loud rhetorical flourishes aside. I mean, imagine for a moment, that you lived in a country that had what you considered chambers of murder comparable to the Nazi ovens on nearly every city block. In New York there are about 25,000 eating establishments. Would someone who really thinks there are 25,000 nazi-like killing establishments right on the street, merely complain loudly?

On the other hand, I do think a meat free and even a vegan diet is health superior for the individual and certainly for the planet. And I think it is ethically better, as well. So I do think this stance is morally worth exploring, advocating, and seeking reforms to approach. I also think our numbers are growing and I would not be surprised if a future society that is fully transformed in RPS ways and has been operating for sometime, will leave behind eating animals. I guess we will find out. But I do not think it has been a core part of RPS program and I am okay with that.

Anton, getting back to the economy, where do we stand regarding new workplaces?

I don’t know any full accounting. Just before RPS began I read there were, perhaps 300 large and effective worker coops in the U.S., but maybe there were more, I don’t know. But for a very few, these weren’t full fledged RPS style workplaces. More typically, they were dominated by coordinator class officials, though having considerably more worker participation and more equitable remuneration schemes than mainstream corporations. They had no clear redefinition of job roles and had barely any awareness of issues regarding interfacing with markets. The latter two absences distorted the aspirations of workers across virtually all these fledgling efforts.

As RPS emerged, coops were the quickest workplace converts. Not having owners – something that was true of all non profits which were similar in various respects to the coops and often overlapped completely – the owner-aspect of opposition to an RPS trajectory was absent. Likewise, coop workers already had a rhetoric of workplace participation and democracy, if not the full reality of it, which meant they were at least part way to an RPS stance. The step to move further was to embrace self management including transforming the division of labor and becoming aware of the pressures of markets and of ways to ward off those pressures and eventually transcend them.

So, RPS workplace progress had three paths: take worker coops another step; organize inside corporations for a trajectory of RPS oriented changes; and set up new fully RPS identified and structured workplaces.

One of the largest factors affecting the speed of such developments was each effort’s willingness to see itself as deserving society-wide emulation and its participants agitating not only for their own individual project, but for others to become involved where they were as well.

I remember an early trip to a workplace in Columbus Ohio. I arrived and got a tour from a few employees. The firm had been in grave trouble and the owners had decided to sell off the assets. The workers felt they could salvage the firm for themselves. The firm could have become a worker coop of the limited sort but partly because of the advanced awareness of some of the workers, and partly because many of the coordinator class staff decided they wanted to leave due to thinking that without the owners it would collapse, the new firm moved pretty quickly in more radical directions.

This was pretty common to the period of the 2020s. Sometimes workers would make incomes equitable and institute workplace democracy in councils, but ignore job definitions and operate with little change regarding market competition. Other times the transformation of a firm would be more complete, including implementing balanced job complexes and full worker self management.

In the former case, the struggle in the workplace would persist largely as a contest between coordinators and workers who were still structurally at odds. In the latter case, the struggle was instead workers against old habits and the pressures of market and banks.

But what I want to note, and what I encountered in my Columbus trip, is different. Talking to them about their efforts to redefine work and social relations was exciting and joyful, to be sure. But there came a moment when I asked how their relatives and friends outside who still worked at typical capitalist corporate workplaces, regarded their efforts. Were they having success organizing such folks to consider following the new path?

And now came a shock. The workers who were so proud of their achievements and so happy about the redefinition of their workplace unanimously said they didn’t talk about their project with those they knew outside. They said folks at other firms would do something similar to what they were doing only if the firm they were in met hard times and the owner decided to cash out like their’s had, so there was no choice but to take over or become unemployed.

I asked if they would take a job in a corporation, if I offered it, giving up their project, no longer having any say, no longer having new type jobs, but in return I would give them higher pay. They all said don’t be ridiculous. Life depends on income, sure, but fulfillment, pleasure, and justice are not measured by wages alone.

I said, okay, if you feel that way, why can’t you explain the benefits of transforming their workplaces to your relatives and friends so that they would begin to pursue such aims even in profitable firms, rather than only when their owners abdicate? They shrugged, literally, and said that just like we didn’t, other folks just won’t get it until they become desperate.

I am still not sure what was at work in this mindset but it was obviously deadly for change. Perhaps it was a variant on hopelessness but it was coming from people who, oddly, had great hope, at least for themselves. Maybe it was a way to avoid the discomfort of clashing with relatives and friends, even if it might be on the road to greater well being and unity for all. Or maybe they literally believed what they were telling me – that as long as there were profit seeking capitalist firms to employ folks, folks would not seek something different and better. I don’t know, but if it persisted it would mean that each transformed workplace would remain an isolated phenomenon, without wider impact, because those involved would not take their insights to others.

RPS realized this worker reticence had to be overcome. A coop transforming, a corporation undergoing internal struggles, and a new firm getting up and running, would each have to report their efforts and experiences. They would each have to see their task as not simply reconstructing their own firm, but also enlisting others to do likewise. Isolated firms of greater equity and justice than in their past were positive, of course, but what really mattered was having each such beachhead become a prod for attaining more.

Some implications were that RPS emphasized creating workers councils and then federations of all workplaces that had such councils, where the federation would take responsibility for mutual aid, mutual defense, and even mutual insurance. When this happened – the whole picture altered.

So, before RPS there were about 30 million small businesses in the U.S. About 20,000 had more than 500 employees, and I think this didn’t count schools, churches, universities, most hospitals, public service industries, etc. Today I would guess there are perhaps 2 million well established RPS small businesses, and another 5 million that are struggling with transforming and that could join the RPS count without much more change. RPS ideas battle for influence in nearly all the rest, too. And there are about 3,000 500 person or more RPS oriented workplaces, and another 2,000 with very substantial struggles going on, and all 20,000 include RPS style campaigns and in most cases already have council organization. And the situation is more advanced in educational, health, and other public service domains.

In short, RPS economics are spreading in the form of actual RPS institutions, advanced face offs inside non RPS institutions over becoming one, and less advanced but still quite serious organizing efforts in the rest. And the momentum is now all ours.

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